ASHEVILLE, NC — A group of volunteer veterans are using their time to help other veterans by raising dogs to be service animals for them.
The Asheville branch of Warrior Canine Connection trains about four to five dogs at a time and has been in business for four years.
The non-profit organization Warrior Canine Connection was officially launched in 2011 and is currently based in Maryland. To date, thousands of veterans have participated in the program, according to data from the organization.
What do you want to know
Warrior Canine Connection has matched over 100 service dogs with veterans with disabilities
Veterans help train the dogs
Asheville branch has helped approximately 20 dogs over the past four years
Stacie Litsenburger, a 24-year-old Army veteran, volunteers with the group as a puppy parent, taking care of a training dog when he’s not at school.
“Being a veteran myself and seeing the impact of war and what it does to the soldiers of our country. I think and know that raising a puppy and helping another veteran is worth everything. To see that connection…they can be a great member of the family, they can go grocery shopping and manage their own anxiety. I just think it’s worth everything,” Litsenburger said.
Litsenburger served several combat tours in the Middle East during his time in the United States Army. So far she has cared for five puppies who were in Asheville for training.
Outside of Asheville, the organization’s other locations are in Palo Alto, Calif., and then at its headquarters in Boyds, Maryland, according to a spokesperson.
So far, 5,300 veterans have participated in the program and 114 service dogs have been awarded to veterans.
Veteran volunteers help socialize the dogs, participate in training programs with professional trainers, and then fully trained and certified assistance dogs are assigned to veterans with disabilities, according to the WCC.
“They’ve had about as intense an experience as you could put them through,” said Matthew Estridge, veteran volunteer coaching assistant.
A veteran of the war in Iraq and the American army, Estridge has been working for several months with the yellow laboratory Arliss.
“Every time I came here I started working with Arliss, so it was a connection pretty much right from the start,” Estridge said of him and Arliss’ Asheville workouts. .
Arliss training will help with item retrieval, anxiety response, and other useful tools for retrieving veterans.
“There were things I was doing, like holding my breath or positioning myself in a certain way. He will come and break that,” Estridge said of his own time volunteering with Arliss.
Training and assistance from a service dog can be essential in helping veterans socialize, complete tasks, and establish a routine upon returning from war.
“Just a little thing like dropping your debit card, when you’ve been waiting for weeks to get groceries because you’re anxious. And you get up for the checkup and you drop your debit card, and you already feel dizzy and you freak out,” Estridge cited as an example.
In addition to her other skills, Arliss learns to turn lights on and off and provide more emotional support.
“I mean, there are so many little things they can do to help a veteran in their day-to-day life,” Estridge added.
But service dogs don’t just help veterans with disabilities after graduation. Training helps volunteer veterans find purpose. Estridge was injured when his tank exploded during a combat tour of Iraq in 2007. Now disabled, he says the emotional bond he formed with those dogs is the reason he returns always to help.
“For veterans, sometimes it’s hard to deal with when you’re disabled and you’re not able to work. And it gives me a way to give back, I know these dogs will change the lives of other veterans. And that’s an amazing thing,” Estridge said with Arliss at his side.
The program meant so much to Estridge that he himself asked to receive one of these dogs. And who knows, he might even train her.
“Having another…a partner that you can go through life with is everything,” Estridge said.
The Warrior Canine Connection location in Asheville is in need of volunteer puppy parents. Veterinary care and food costs are covered, and all families are welcome to apply to volunteer as long as you live within an hour of Asheville. For more details, you can go to the Warrior Canine Connection website.